She showed up at the playground, when I first noticed her. My toddler daughter was playing on the structure with the ropes and slide and stuff right in the middle of the place and there was an older girl, probably of middle school age by the look of her; tall and thin with long dark hair running along with my daughter and playing right along, the two girls made good company together.
After a while it was time to leave. The Florida heat was pretty intense and with the clouds building up all day, it was about time for the regular afternoon monsoon. Lightning flashed high up in distant nimbus cloud columns while strapping my child into the stroller, the other little girl being nearby and helpfully gathering our playthings.
“Thanks for hanging out with Alyssa,” I started, “you are really good with little kids. What’s your name?”
“ Ronnie,” she told me as we started to walk out of the park.
“Well, Ronnie, it looks like it’s going to pour any minute. We’re heading home. Will we see you later?” I asked. Our apartment was just down the street, we’d make it in time.
“I live just down the street and around the corner with my mom,” she said. “ But she lets me do what I want in the afternoon. Can I hang with you guys?”
Fat, lazy raindrops landed with a splat here and there; I wasn’t about to argue as we neared our doorstep. As soon as we stepped inside, the heavens opened up as if a tap turned on while the cool air of the apartment instantly offered relief from the intense heat. Getting re-situated at home, with the stroller and stuff, I got a better look at our new friend. A bit of the ragamuffin, I thought, rail thin and long bony feet in her flip-flops. Maybe five feet tall, I judged, with nice big brown eyes and generous lips; she’d grow into a beauty some day. And a tall one, if she’s going to grow into those feet.
“All right, who needs some ice cream?” I asked, reaching into the freezer and pulling out a pop for the baby and another for Ronnie. Occasional thunder shook the windows and lightning flashed frequently through the windows. We lived in a tidy little three bedroom apartment, one for the master bedroom, one for the baby, and the last bedroom is my office slash studio where I photograph products for catalogs and do my writing. There is just enough room to photograph somebody modeling a pair of pants or a jacket for a catalog, but nothing fancy as far as that goes. The master bedroom was especially roomy since my wife took off after the baby was born. Something about the tropical atmosphere in South Florida changes people, steamy goings on, and the neighborhood here is so transitory; it’s an old story – she met somebody and just needed something without all the responsibility. No, she laid it on me. Our lovely daughter Alyssa. So, she’s gone. I cope. We deal. Fortunately I can work from home.
Ronnie stood at the sliding glass door at the back of the apartment and looked across the way. “Oh you can see my place from over here,” and she pointed to the left while I looked at a block of older units which faced their backs towards ours. She was a neighbor. She also smelled, as I stood there, noticing how unkempt she really was, for the first time. Her feet looked practically crusted with dirt and she glistened from sweat.
“Would you like to help give Alyssa a bubble bath?” I suggested. We headed into the bathroom and once the tub was full and frothy, I averted my gaze while Ronnie quickly stripped and jumped in. Handing Alyssa to her, I used a washcloth to soap up and then rinse the baby. Then I took the plastic cup we used for rinsing and dumped water on Ronnie’s head, making her squeal and the baby laugh. She made faces while I massaged shampoo and then after rinsing, some conditioner into her scalp. Running my fingers through her knotty hair, I tried to untangle as much as I could. Handing her a washcloth, I took the baby to dry off and left Ronnie to wash herself, and to play in the water as she wished while I got Alyssa dressed and down for her nap. Gathering up her clothes, I was going to throw them in the wash, because there were even scorch marks in her underwear, if you know what I mean. No sense getting clean and dressing in dirty clothes after. I left her a huge bath sheet to wrap in after she was done.
She was sitting on the couch by the time I same out of the baby’s room, pulling the door shut behind me. Ronnie had turned the TV on, wrapped in a towel with her long brown hair hanging wetly around her shoulders. There was a hairbrush once my wife’s which I brought over to the couch and, sitting next to her, began to brush Ronnie’s hair, beginning at the very bottom. She allowed me to pull on her head like that, but sitting sideways was awkward, so I asked her to sit on my knees, to make it easier. And it was.
We talked while I brushed out her neglected locks, she told me about her mother, who seems to always be sleeping, according to her daughter, and evidently goes out at night leaving her to fend for herself for dinner and putting herself to bed. Sounding something like some kind of neglected kid to me, Ronnie told me about going to C----- S-----s Middle school but not knowing anybody and not being in any of the cliques there and how the kids treated her mean. Being 13 is a tough age, I agreed, sticking a finger into her ribs, which I meant to elicit a laugh.
“I’m not ticklish,” she announced, prompting me to try poking a gain. A squeeze on the knee. Nothing. “I’m not ticklish.”
“Not even this?” I asked, holding her arm and tracing my fingertip lightly from palm to elbow. Nothing.
“How about this?” I inquire, taking her foot and running my finger along the length of her sole, “or this,” while I try the tracing thing again, this time up her leg to where the towel begins it’s wrap. Not a flinch.
Oh well. We settle back to watch some television and I am idly aware of this girl on my lap as I drowsily continue to trace my fingers along her arm, along her leg, down her leg again. She wriggles a little and I wander back up her leg again. “I’m not ticklish,” she reminds me. My pulse beats a little harder when I detour up her leg, up along the inside a little more each stroke of my tracing, almost daring myself, a little more further beyond the towel’s border. Soon I am along the softest part of her upper thighs, something very hot radiating not far from my hand as I trace along her flesh.
“ I bet you’re ticklish here,” I said, with my heart thumping in my throat. The back of my hand drifted past the juncture of her legs as she suddenly reached and pulled my hand tight against her.